Allegories between The Conversation (1974) and the Pegasus Scandal of 2021.
What is private and what is not? The line between personal space and public knowledge has been increasingly getting blurry over the past few decades. Although espionage, spying and wire-tapping has not been limited to political and military motives, the film ‘The Conversation’ (1973) shows us the onset of its uses in civilian lives.
The Pegasus software is a data retrieving, secretive spyware that has affected both governmental and non-governmental organizations, leaking phone numbers and data.
Francis Ford Coppola has been renowned for his ageless classics The Godfather and its two installations (1972-90), Patton (1970), Apocalypse Now (1979) and many more. He initially concurred this idea a decade before actually preparing to direct it, while in a conversation with a friend regarding the extents to which people can avoid being recorded or spied on. What was born of it was a commercially small scale, passion-driven movie, The Conversation in 1974, tucked between the two marvellous Godfather movies.
It stars Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Cindy Williams and Harrison Ford. The plotline of the movie revolves around an introverted audio technician, Harry Caul, who runs a surveillance company. He has been given the contract of shadowing a couple in a busy square, record their conversations and sell it to his employer. Caul is highly skilled in his art, but is constantly living in the fear of being spied on himself.
This results in him taking major measures to live a life of secrecy and precaution, always looking over his soldier twice while walking on a road. He does his job without intervention into his clients, but is surprisingly intrigued by this one particular conversation between the couple. He sorts out all the white noise and background disturbances, filters them out to solely focus on the talk, leading to him being somewhat obsessed with it and mixed up in a scandal. But all this is besides my point. I would like to only focus on the surveillance technology and the extents to which it can go.
Rationale and contexts
In an interview, Coppola gave his reason for making this movie, that his friend mentioned of two people are safest from spied on when they are in a crowded place. The Conversation is a testament to prove this statement wrong, showing how much of privacy we can truly have in an increasing social world. Investigative machinery has improved by miles, from homing pigeons to U2 planes, telephone tapping, to now, spyware on your mobile phones, it has gone through monumental changes in its range and capacity.
In the movie, Caul competes with a rival from the other coast, involving them in a battle of who has the better communications capturing equipment. We see a furlough of miscalculation, with them bringing out the latest of gadgets to prove that they can survey better. We see the importance of technical superiority in the ever-demanding world and face the innate problem of seeking control and also utter privacy.
Connections to Pegasus
Enter, Pegasus spyware; designed to infiltrate any smartphone without the owner of the smartphone even acting on it. It could simply be a delivered message, missed call, email or just a link sent to your chats. It simply needs a phone number and can then access all your personal information, control device setting such as switching on your camera and microphone, have open gateway to your photos, phone calls and text messages. In the Conversation, Caul’s competitor comes up with a similar innovation; all he needed was a phone number and a certain code to dial it in and just like that the receiver’s end of the other telephone becomes a microphone and anyone can listen in. Control is a very dangerous thing; those who have it want to overuse, those who don’t, dream of overusing it and those who do overuse it fall into a dark abyss of knowing what harm it could do to them.
This is specifically what happens to Caul, who is affected not by him surveying his clients, but the fact that someone can do the same to him. This frightens him and therefore, he lives in denial of the same, always staying alert and loving the fact that there is no place on earth his ears can’t hear. Why has privacy become such an expensive thing? Partly because humans have evolved to being social creatures, invested into the idea of consciously sharing his/her information through social media and advertisements.
Agreed that common people conversations not affiliated with bureaucrats have been widely unaffected, but it the cracks in the pillars of democracy that we are hit with. The fact that constitutional rights can and might be so easily bypassed for some information and power. The Conversation teaches us the side effects of being one of the people surveying, facts that you yourself are paranoid about being heard or watched, to the points that your scrap your entire house looking for a bug.
Initially intended to curb violent terrorist activities, Pegasus has been known to sell only to government actors. It is heavily expensive and can be easily installed into your phone. The fact that neither you nor your service provider/ phone company can do anything about it pushes you to think about what could be in place for any other such ventures in the future. In a world full of data freely circulated in circles, it is the rise of stronger encryption facilities that pushes countries to move on such drastic measures.
Mr. Caul lived a somewhat private life, mainly due to the little technology he used personally. We are all potential targets, we must all be paranoid such as Mr. Caul, if we are anywhere near feeling safe with devices capable of literally leaving enormous footprints marked with our names and addresses.